I didn't have high expectations for Sarah Haywood's The Cactus. Goodreads places it in the Chick Lit category, and it's been described as endearing, heartfelt and charming. Reese Witherspoon chose it for her book club, and like 'Where the Crawdads Sing', which was one of my most disliked books of the past couple of years, intends to adapt it for the screen.
The story is narrated by its protagonist, Susan Green, who in the first sentence of the book describes herself as "not a woman who bears grudges, broods over disagreements or questions other people’s motives", which implies that she most certainly will do all of those things in the following pages. We quickly discover she's suffering bouts of nausea in the mornings, and that her mother has just died.
I enjoyed the first chapter. In the wake of her mother's death, Susan reflects on her childhood, which wasn't particularly happy, and comments on her life since she left the family home in Birmingham. Every Christmas she dutifully returned to see her mother, but considers her brother Edward to be "weak-willed and self-indulgent", and has no time for her aunt and cousins. Her life is in London, but she hasn't bothered to make friends at work, complaining that "If it wasn’t for the fact that I have colleagues, office life would be bearable".
Sadly I found the next 75% of the book repetitive, with example upon example of Susan's pomposity, interspersed with unsubtle clues about a family secret. As the story moves towards the big reveal and resolution, my interest picked up again. I especially enjoyed its treatment of the law regarding contesting a will. The dialogue between Susan and her legal friend was well-written, as were the court scenes, which is no surprise when you read on Sarah Haywood's website that she studied law and worked as a solicitor.
Ultimately tho' I didn't find the character of Susan to be credible. As a narrator she was transparent, superficial, and just not likeable. The blurb on the jacket compares The Cactus to Gail Honeyman's 'Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine'. They are both debut novels, but the latter has more depth and consistency. Eleanor Oliphant made me laugh and cry, whereas The Cactus did neither. 'Convenience Store Woman' and 'Good Behaviour' feature odd women too, but they are more finely drawn. I don't think The Cactus aims to be the next literary masterpiece. It's as light and airy as popcorn and has a happy ending. I prefer something with more taste and bite.
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